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New guide helps Australian businesses working in conflict zones

1 July 2020

With more Australian companies doing business overseas, a new practical guide from Australian Red Cross and RMIT University is helping companies working in war zones meet their legal obligations ahead of new end of financial year reporting requirements. 

The guide, ‘Doing Responsible Business in Armed Conflict’, outlines how businesses working in conflict zones can navigate their risks, rights and responsibilities under international humanitarian law (IHL) – also known as the laws of war. It helps businesses incorporate relevant aspects of IHL into policies and practices, as well as highlighting the relevance of IHL to the Australian private sector, including the distinction between IHL and human rights law.

The guide’s publication comes as businesses turn their minds to new compliance obligations under the Australian Securities Exchange Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations, which came into effect on 1 January 2020, for future end of financial year reporting. Now, for the first time, listed companies must disclose whether their or their suppliers’ business practices risk aiding conflict.

Fauve Kurnadi, Legal Adviser for Academic and Private Sector Engagement in the International Humanitarian Law Program at Australian Red Cross, said businesses in Australia who operate in these environments have the power and influence to significantly impact the communities in which they work.

“At first glance, it can be hard to see how IHL is relevant to Australian businesses. Some people think the Geneva Conventions – which form the cornerstone of IHL – only relate to governments and humanitarian workers, not private industries like mining and energy companies,” she said. “But IHL is an important and often overlooked consideration in discussions about responsible business practices in complex environments, and a diverse range of businesses face real ethical and legal risks in the context of armed conflict.”

Dr Jonathan Kolieb, Senior Lecturer at RMIT University’s Graduate School of Business and Law and a member of the Australian Red Cross International Humanitarian Law Advisory Committee in Victoria, said for companies doing business in conflict zones the principle of ‘do no harm’ should be at the core of all operations.

“To know that you are doing no harm, you have to proactively understand, honour and promote IHL,” he said.

“We have found few businesses include IHL in their policies and practices, despite calls to action in global business and human rights initiatives. This lack of awareness opens up businesses to further risks, obligations and legal liabilities,” he said. “However, the good news is most businesses’ existing human rights policies, for example on risk management and training, already provide the framework needed to implement IHL.”

Red Cross is committed to helping protect people and communities impacted by war and armed conflict, and has a mandate to ensure all Australians know about and respect IHL. Together with RMIT University, Red Cross is committed to working with Australian businesses, particularly those working in conflict-prone and conflict-affected regions, to ensure they have the knowledge and tools to align their practices with IHL.

For more information and to download the guide.

Contact details: media@redcross.org.au, 1800 733 443